Presenting the winners of Smithsonian magazine's 18th annual photo contest
Presenting the winners of Smithsonian magazine's 18th annual photo contest (Collage by Meilan Solly)

These Are the Winners of Smithsonian Magazine’s 18th Annual Photo Contest

From India to Antarctica, these pictures capture the passion, solitude and surprise of a year unlike any other

Smithsonian Magazine
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | May 2021

The two young women passed Skyler Wilson at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. just long enough for him to make eye contact and snap a photograph. “I was immediately curious,” says Wilson, a second lieutenant in the Indiana National Guard. After the march, Wilson connected with his subjects through social media and learned they were sisters from the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, protesting on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Throughout the United States and Canada, Indigenous women and girls are far more likely than women in the general population to be killed or assaulted. “This was eye-opening for me,” says Wilson.

He created his startling picture—the Grand Prize winner of our 18th annual photo contest—in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic did away with large unmasked public gatherings. But even during a long year of lockdowns and quarantines, the curiosity that inspires photographers remained active, as many of our other winning entries show: A distant neighbor on a Mumbai terrace. A lone drinker at a downsized motorcycle festival in Russia. “If you can get someone to stop, do a double take and ask ‘What’s this about?’” says Wilson, “that’s when the conversation can really begin.”

Inspired by these photographs? Enter your favorite images in the 19th annual Smithsonian magazine photo contest!

Skyler Wilson, "Into the Crowd" (Grand Prize)
Winner: Grand Prize
Skyler Wilson, 24
Washington, D.C.
Photographed: January 2020


After years of taking photos in tightly controlled military environments, the National Guard officer was riveted by the scope of the Women’s March. “There were so many stories, all the different reasons each person was there,” he says. The red handprint is a symbol worn at rallies across North America. It represents the silence around the issue: In a comprehensive review in 2017, the Urban Indian Health Institute reported that 5,712 Indigenous women and girls from 71 U.S. cities, ranging in age from 1 to 83, had gone missing in the previous year. Only 116 of those cases had been logged in the Justice Department’s missing persons database. (Skyler Wilson)
Lynsey Schroeder, "San Manuel Milky Way" (American Experience)
Winner: American Experience
Lynsey Schroeder, 28
Near San Manuel, Arizona
Photographed: May 2020


Schroeder, who has a degree in aerospace engineering, has long been fascinated by the night sky. After moving from Minnesota to Tucson six years ago, she also fell in love with the saguaros native to the American Southwest. The flash of a passing car helped Schroeder capture the cacti against their cosmic backdrop. “I bring my own lighting,” she says. “But sometimes the unexpected ends up working even better.” (Lynsey Schroeder)
John Comisky, "Whale Tail 2" (Natural World)
Winner: Natural World
John Comisky, 72
Antarctica
Photographed: January 2020


The California-based wildlife photographer journeyed to Antarctica just before the pandemic derailed most of his travel plans for the year. He sailed with an expedition team into a small bay, expecting to find a dozen or so humpback whales. Instead, he found 250 of them in the midst of a feeding frenzy—the largest of its kind observed by the expedition’s crew. “It was like being in another world,” Comisky says, “seeing something that almost no one’s ever seen.” Witnessing such a gathering just 60 years after the species was pushed to the brink of extinction was enough to bring another expedition member to tears. (John Comisky)
Matt Stasi, "Paying Respect at a George Floyd Sit-in" (People)
Winner: People
Matt Stasi, 46
West Hollywood, California
Photographed: June 2020


The mask worn by a Hollywood resident named Guy Peel brings together two of the topics that dominated 2020: Covid-19, a disease that attacks its victims’ lungs, and the Black Lives Matter movement, whose supporters adopted the slogan “I can’t breathe.” Stasi took this portrait at a June protest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, who uttered the phrase more than 20 times as a police officer kneeled on his neck. Stasi says Peel “was so stoic, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.” (Matt Stasi)
Olesia Kim, "Generous Russia" (Travel)
Winner: Travel
Olesia Kim, 39
Irbit, Russia
Photographed: September 2020


Most years, this manufacturing town east of the Ural Mountains draws thousands of visitors to its July motorcycle show. Because of the pandemic, the outdoor event was slimmed down and postponed to September. Kim arrived just in time to snap this assortment of food and drinks on the hood of a car. Although the picture shows a lone woman, the spread itself captures the human need for community and is full of Russian symbols: the Soviet-era GAZ-24 “Volga” automobile, the sardines, the pickles fermented at a country dacha, the slices of bread topped with butter and caviar. (Olesia Kim)
Erika Zolli, "Sacred Trinity" (Altered Images)
Winner: Altered Images
Erika Zolli, 34
Varese, Italy
Photographed: May 2020


Isolated during the pandemic, Zolli developed a renewed appreciation for her own inner life. In this self-portrait, the Milan-based fine art photographer examines the tension between her conscious actions and unconscious desires. Says Zolli, “This shot is a sort of reminder that I wanted to give to myself to always go on, even when doubts arise.” (Erika Zolli)
Mayank Soni, "Lockdown Diaries" (Mobile)
Winner: Mobile
Mayank Soni, 37
Mumbai, India
Photographed: April 2020


Toward the beginning of the lockdown, while playing outside with his niece, Soni spotted a stranger on a distant terrace, obscured by reflections and fading light. As a longtime resident of the loud, bustling city of 20 million, Soni was struck by the symbolism. He knew the moment and the light would be fleeting, so instead of going to get his camera, Soni reached for his phone and turned to his niece. “I said, ‘I need to take a picture first and then we’ll continue playing.’” (Mayank Soni)
Tran Tuan Viet, "Colorful Work" (Readers' Choice)
Winner: Readers' Choice
Tran Tuan Viet, 38
Near Hanoi, Vietnam
Photographed: November 2020


Vietnamese photographer Tran Tuan Viet captured this colorful snapshot of a worker preparing a hot air balloon while attending a local festival last fall. “Vietnam has experienced several waves of Covid-19, and fortunately it has been successfully controlled,” he says. (Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Southeast Asian country has recorded 2,594 infections and 35 deaths.) Viet adds, “I hope [that] from my photos, people will see the beauty and diversity from other perspectives, naturally frozen by [the] pandemic.” (Tran Tuan Viet)
About the Author: Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's assistant digital editor, humanities. Website: meilansolly.com. Read more articles from Meilan Solly and

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